So Much for Cocaine and LSD—Angel Dust Is America's Most Dangerous New Drug

It is known by a variety of names on the street: angel dust, rocket fuel, lovely and goon. But to San Francisco drug expert Steven Lerner, phencyclidine (PCP) is simply the most dangerous drug to hit the streets since LSD. Federal authorities estimate that there are over seven million users of PCP in the U.S. and that deaths caused either by overdose or by PCP-induced violence are mounting rapidly. Lerner and neurologist Stanley Burns began studying PCP and its effects at rock concerts four years ago and together have observed, examined, or analyzed the hospital records of more than 2,000 users. Lerner, 31, is one year away from receiving his Ph.D. at the California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley. Yet he is already a much-in-demand lecturer on drug rehabilitation, pharmacology, medicine and psychiatry. He has testified—as an expert witness—for both the prosecution and the defense in numerous trials involving PCP and counsels police on how best to apprehend an unpredictable and potentially dangerous user. He and Burns have also acted as consultants on PCP documentaries. Lerner, a bachelor, recently discussed the perils of PCP with Sue Ellen Jares for PEOPLE.

Why are you so alarmed at the spread of PCP?

People chronically exposed may never be normal again. It produces memory loss, personality changes, severe depression and suicidal and homicidal tendencies. Users liken the feeling to no feeling—a living death. It is the ultimate drop-out drug.

Precisely what is PCP?

Phencyclidine is made from 11 different chemicals and is an entirely new class of psychoactive drug. It was originally manufactured legally by Parke, Davis & Co. in the late 1950s as an experimental surgical anesthetic. When bad side effects were reported, its use for humans was discontinued in 1965. Subsequently it was employed as an animal tranquilizer—a still legal use. PCP is incorrectly referred to as a hallucinogen, upper or downer; it has hallucinogenic properties, but that is only one aspect of the drug. PCP is unique.

Is PCP physically addictive?

There is no question about its psychological dependence, but we haven’t seen any physical withdrawal symptoms yet.

Why is it so dangerous?

Because it’s unpredictable. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s your first time or whether you’ve been using it for eight years daily, there’s no way of predicting if you may have a period of bizarre or violent behavior.

In what forms does “angel dust” come and how is it taken?

It is sold under 70 or 80 different names. The most popular, in addition to PCP, angel dust and crystal, are THC, cannabinol, dust, peace pill, tack, wack wack, erth, green, KW and sheets. It is on the illicit market as a powder, a tablet, a leaf mixture, a liquid and as “rock” crystals. It is often sprinkled on marijuana cigarettes and smoked, although it is also snorted, taken in capsule form, as eye drops and—increasingly—by injection.

Who is the typical user?

Use of the drug cuts across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Because of its disinhibiting and anesthetic properties, it has been used before gang fights. The average age of first use is 14 years, and users are generally mid-teens to mid-20s. Alarmingly, it is now being taken by children as young as 9.

What effect does PCP have on the user?

As an animal tranquilizer, it can knock out an elephant. In humans, a small amount produces agitation, excitement and disorientation. If the dosage is increased, the user becomes stuporous or delirious, and with massive doses may suffer coma, seizures and death. The intoxication can mimic schizophrenia.

Are claims of violence exaggerated?

No. In our initial studies of a group who had used it for five years on a regular basis, almost all had some episodes where they were outlandish or bizarre. Violence appears to stem primarily from chronic use. However, it is sometimes seen with limited exposure.

Why has PCP been blamed for drownings and death by fire?

Users’ depth perception is distorted—they can’t appreciate where their limbs are in three-dimensional space. If they are grossly intoxicated, they grope around. In our studies, people have had to literally climb up onto a scale that was two or three inches off the ground. Users are immobilized and unable to respond to imminent danger, whether of drowning or burning.

What are the drug’s long-range effects?

It is too soon to be sure of permanent damage. But for someone who has used PCP regularly three days a week for six months or more and then discontinued all use of the drug, we see difficulty with speech, memory, abstraction and concentration. Periods of bizarre, violent, suicidal, homicidal and amnesiac behavior may persist for several years. Stuttering is frequently reported. Many become paranoid, and some carry weapons to protect themselves from imagined enemies.

Don’t amphetamines in large doses also cause temporarily psychotic behavior?

Yes, but when someone stops using amphetamines the psychosis ends within a week. The user is then generally oriented and clear, but depressed. That is not true of PCP, where the psychosis may persist.

How serious is the psychosis caused by PCP?

In Florida a person claimed to see a cloudlike mass over an elderly woman’s bed and, because he became fearful for her safety, attempted to attack it with a knife. He then backed out of the woman’s house, took her car, drove from Miami Beach to Texas and was picked up for speeding. He had committed murder, but he felt sure he never touched the victim.

Is this case unique?

No, in another case a man walked across an eight-lane highway and into an unlocked house. A pregnant woman was standing at the kitchen sink. He started to stab her, was distracted by a baby crying in another room, whom he then stabbed to death. He resumed his attack on the woman, who survived but lost the child she was carrying. The man maintained he had no recollection of this. He is now in prison in California.

Do people combine PCP with other drugs besides marijuana?

Yes. Many patients who show up in hospital emergency rooms have taken angel dust or combined it with barbiturates, alcohol or an opiate. The first deaths we saw were primarily from PCP, but now we see polydrug deaths too.

What are the signs of angel dust a parent should look for?

It’s difficult, but one telltale sign is a fluctuating state of consciousness. Behavior may be altered radically and without warning. The user can carry on a conversation, then suddenly become noncommunicative or stop in his tracks and after several minutes resume the conversation. He may jump from topic to topic. It is not uncommon to see someone with a blank stare or coordination problems right after ingestion.

Are there some guidelines for doctors to follow when treating PCP users?

Yes. We suggest holding the patient for a minimum of two hours’ observation after he is alert and oriented. If someone remains in a stupor or coma for more than three hours, he should be held for a minimum of 24 hours. For both groups, the person, as well as friends or family, needs to be warned at discharge of the possibility of suicidal depression.

Why is PCP suddenly so popular?

It is much easier and cheaper to get than any other street drug except marijuana. Typically, a gram sells for $35 in Los Angeles and $100 in San Francisco. A gram yields enough powder to sprinkle on anywhere from 10 to 30 joints. From the seller’s viewpoint, the profits are tremendous. In L.A., a $625 investment yields a profit of $225,000. One college chemistry professor in Bakersfield was caught with $200,000 worth of PCP for “research.” The drug is being manufactured in kitchens, bathrooms and recreational vehicles, so it is virtually impossible for law enforcement people to track them down.

How can we stop the use of angel dust?

By education. If you ask kids the difference between LSD and PCP, the typical response is that LSD is a bad drug and that PCP is a mild psychedelic, a little bit heavier than marijuana. In fact, PCP is a drug you can’t afford to try—even once.

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